NEW YORK, March 26 — Tobacco-industry money has been revealed as the funding source of a widely publicized study that reported annual CT-screening of smokers and former smokers could save lives by detecting lung cancer at its earliest stage.
The money, $3.6 million, was funneled through a charity called the Foundation for Lung Cancer: Early Detection, Prevention & Treatment, according to a front page article in today’s New York Times.
Claudia I. Henschke, M.D., Ph.D., of Weill Cornell Medical Center who was principal investigator for the I-ELCAP (International Early Lung Cancer Action Program), served as president of the foundation. Her co-investigator, David Yankelevitz, M.D., was its secretary-treasurer, Antonio Gotto, M.D., dean of Weill Cornell, and Arthur J. Mahon, vice-chairman of the Weill Cornell board of overseers, were listed as directors.
The tobacco money came in the form of four grants from the Vector Group, which is the parent company of the Liggett Group, maker of Liggett Select, Eve, Grand Prix, Quest, and Pyramid cigarettes.
As reported in the Oct. 26 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, I-ELCAP screened more than 31,000 persons at risk for lung cancer from smoking or environmental exposure to carcinogens.
The annual low-dose CT spiral scans picked up 484 lung cancers, 85% of which were clinical stage I, with an estimated 10-year survival rate of 88%.
Dr. Henschke said that the results suggested that annual screening could prevent 80% of lung cancer deaths, an extrapolation that was disputed almost as soon as it was published. (See: Spiral CT Screening for Lung Cancer Detects Early Curable Disease)
The Times uncovered the tobacco link by investigating the tax records of the foundation. When told about the funding, Jeffrey M. Drazen, M.D., editor-in-chief of the NEJM, said that during his seven-year tenure, the journal had never knowingly published any tobacco-funded research.
Otis Brawley, M.D., chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, told the newspaper that the ACS would not have given Dr. Henschke more than $100,000 in research grants if it had known that she was “using blood money.”
The Times said Drs. Henschke and Yankelevitz denied any wrong-doing. In an email, the investigators pointed out that the grants were “announced publicly [and] the advocacy and public health community knew about it.”